My leg is hurting so much that I can not get anything useful done today, so I’ll tell you a story instead.
Years ago I had a German girlfriend. One week we went to visit her family in Berlin. It was the first time I’d been to Berlin. In fact, it was my first time away from the British mainland. The wall was down but there was still a striking difference between the East and West. The West was much like every other modern city except that the utilities were housed in pipes that sprouted out of the pavements and ran along in the air for a while before changing direction for no apparent reason and eventually plunging back into the ground or into buildings. The East was strange. My girlfriend’s parents lived in a tower block. There were maybe five such blocks arranged around a plaza. They had originally been issued to families by the state and when the wall came down they were basically given to those families. Many of which immediately moved out because the flats weren’t in great condition and now there was nobody to do even pretend maintenance and nobody had any money. So the families that remained spread out into unused flats. My girlfriend’s parents lived in one flat and she and her brother had their own flats in the same building from the time they were both young teenagers. Pretty sweet, right? We stayed for the week in her flat.
After we’d settled in, we went upstairs so I could meet her parents. Shamefully, my German was even worse then than it is now and they didn’t speak much English. The first thing my girlfriend’s father did after shaking my hand was to give me a magazine with a grin on his face.
It turned out to be a German edition of Playboy. This is not what I expected when meeting my girlfriend’s parents, but Germans tend to be less inhibited than the English so I thought what the fuck and flicked my way through it, turning it sideways at the centrefold and trying to take exactly the right amount of interest in the contents while miming small talk.
My girlfriend didn’t say a word all this time. But she had a slight smile on her face, which in hindsight should have tipped me off.
She explained afterwards, with much hilarity, that her grandfather had invented the machine that makes thermos flasks. The magazine had a calendar of significant world events in the back and – this being a German Playboy – it included the invention of this machine and a short profile of its inventor.
It turns out this is what I was supposed to be looking at. But instead I went right ahead and scrutinised every page with obvious interest and curiosity. During the first ten minutes of meeting my girlfriend’s family.
It turned out to be an interesting trip. We went shopping for clothes in a shop that sold them by weight. There were no changing rooms, but that didn’t stop people simply stripping naked in the middle of the shop and trying on clothes. We went to bars in the student quarter which were just people’s houses. Seriously, we sat on their sofa watching TV while they served us warm beer in ordinary cups out of kegs that had cats and dogs sleeping on them. These are all completely brilliant ideas.
Years and years later I lived in another part of Germany and it was nothing like that although still completely brilliant. I expect Berlin isn’t much like that any more either. If so, it’s a shame. Places should be more like that.